No living organism can continue to exist—or indeed, desire to exist—under the strain of crushing unreality; dreams are, in fact, the very thing that turn some to dust. Hill House, its unreality seeping through the neatly aligned—perhaps, maligned —floor boards, is one such place. Dust sits in the corners of rooms, run through as they are by Mrs. Dudley’s feather duster; tiles, mortared in by civil hands, run in rows of the most precise lines, tightly pressed to the concrete foundations placed fifty years earlier. The parquet foyer—silent and untouched as the foyers of old houses often are—runs straight to the wrought-iron door. Floors flow towards doorways with immediacy; most people run towards them with even more.
Eleanor Vance was not a doctor; she was not a nurse. She was not one to run towards doorways—she ran from them without grace, and without sense—though, of course, she had run towards Hill House with arms flailing, purloined car and all. The car—a sensible station wagon selected by her sister and abhorred by Eleanor for its equally sensible dark grey color—was wrapped around a looming oak halfway down the expansive drive of Hill House; it would cost a great deal to replace and a great deal more in lost time. This was of little consequence to Eleanor, being as she was, laid out on the parquet floors of Hill House. Eleanor, occupant of Hill House—who was, herself, nameless and forgotten—had existed with such a condition as unendurable unreality for a short time and one might have expected her to exist in such a way for a while longer; instance cut short by circumstance. Her clothes floated around her nonsensically and her hair glowed the pale grey of the dead; her eyes were dark holes in her face and no one dared to gaze for long at the startling pallor of her hands and cheeks. She would not be leaving Hill House; exception to this, of course, would be in a hearse, if her sister determined to spend any money on the burial at all.
Eleanor’s fate, realized on the drive of Hill House, had created a victim of unreality; a lifetime of serving her ill, obstinate mother had grown a naїve individual of child-like imagination and desire who had spent all her time waiting on death. It had been a waiting that fostered impatience, constant disappointment, and reckless intentions. The waiting, at first, had generated a delicious anticipation within Hill House, an anticipation quickly been soured by fear, then pressed like the edges of a bruise until it ached and throbbed, until finally, the waiting had driven her into a tree. As she had not been alone when the crash had happened, Eleanor had been dragged into Hill House by her feet, like so many unlucky stuffed dolls, and made to lie in the foyer. At the time, Dr. Montague, piteous and miserable, stood next to Luke Sanderson and Theodora, and said, as jovially as he could manage, “I suppose that it is time for us all to leave Hill House.”
Indeed, it very nearly was.
Eleanor Vance had died at dawn. There had been no one in Hill House at dawn; Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, the caretaker and cook, respectively, had returned to their home in Ashton for the night, while Theodora, Luke Sanderson, Arthur Parker, and Dr. and Mrs. Montague had all followed her down the drive. While the sun crept through the cracks between the century-old cypress trees, Eleanor crashed her sister’s car—or, it was half her car, really—around an oak tree; not a one of them had done a thing to stop it.
Theodora was an artist and a runaway. She had been classically trained as a child; rather than chasing after the acclaim sought by her parents, Theo—as she signed her paintings—had adopted la vie Bohème and ran off with a dear friend who translated anonymous works attributed to Alfred de Musset. Her parents neither remembered her nor cared that she had left for Hill House; the only one remaining in the world who cared where Theodora had gone was her friend, still residing—or so she presumed—in their urban apartment. Hill House had given her friends; it had given her Eleanor. Nothing had ever felt as it did there; she could live a thousand more lives and never come close to the pounding, exhaustive energy running through the house, through the bones of every one of its occupants. Hill House was fear amplified; fear made real. Theodora was not made for shame, the Girl Scouts, or glory; to a character such as herself, fear seemed just as unnatural. She did not want to leave.
Luke Sanderson had shut his eyes as the car had gone into the ditch; he had covered his ears when the glass and metal began to screech across the bark of the ancient trees and the tumbling gravel of the drive. He had washed his hands for nearly an hour after helping Arthur to bring the body—wrapped carefully in a plastic raincoat by Theo—inside, though there had not been a speck of Eleanor anywhere on his person. His hands were impossibly manicured; the pads of his fingers worn away like shells tossed about by sea water, his nails carefully trimmed into even, round domes. The hands were a causatum of his upbringing; his mother bragged, often and loudly, to anyone who would listen, that her boy had the best schooling, the best clothes, the best taste. It might be argued by some that his taste—however impeccable it might seem—had to be the most off-putting part of Luke himself; he refused all but the best and was impossibly squeamish. He had been brought up richly, smartly, and tastefully; not bravely—he was foolhardy, exhaustive, rash—but never brave. Luke was not a runaway, either. He had thought—until Eleanor’s crash, at least— Perhaps I can leave Hill House. It was ironic—as the son of Hill House’s heir, he was the only one—pallid corpse of Eleanor Vance notwithstanding—who could not leave at all.
The constable arrived in the early morning. He wore a jaunty hat made of black cork and a smile. I hate him desperately, thought Theodora. I want to smash his head in with the baton that he keeps swinging about. Of course, she did nothing.
He smiled and said, “We had a crash here? At—you say—four o’clock in the morning?”
I hate him. I would like to beat him with a shoe; I would like to watch him choke. Theodora smiled and said, “Yes, officer.”
The constable moved towards the oak, noting the shreds of metal on the trunk of the tree, the shattered glass crunching underfoot and ground into dry grass. He took out a quaint brown notebook, bound in leather, and a little pen with a clear plastic cap. Wind rustled through the trees; the constable held his hat to his head tightly and began to peer about the grass, carefully lifting a piece of blood-stained car window glass and tucking it into a bag for inspection. The constable was a methodical man, prone to fits of meticulous note-taking about the most inane happenings in Ashton; a feat, perhaps, considered necessary as the man was the only officer in the entirety of the small town. He had kept careful notes on every keychain and candybar lifted from the general store; he would take even more on the only interesting happenstance he’d seen in all the twenty years he’d spent in the tiny town.
Theodora, of course, had not a care about the immaculately typed file folders in the constable’s police office. Rather, she wanted the man gone.
“Everything looks just as you said—and you’ve moved the body indoors, correct? Have you notified the next-of-kin?”
“No,” said the doctor. “We wanted to speak with you first.”
“I suppose that’s what you ought to do now, then; there’s not much left to do here. Eleanor Vance, you say?”
“Yes,” said Theodora. “She’s inside.”
“You mean the body is, anyways.”
Theodora frowned. She considered, tilting her head to the side like a confused bird—oh, yes, it was only her body, and they really ought to do something about it before Mrs. Dudley came to set at eight and clear at ten. Would Mrs. Dudley clear Eleanor’s body from the foyer? Perhaps she would; perhaps she would scrub away traces of Eleanor like the stains of spilled coffee on the grand oak table in the formal dining hall. Theodora giggled at the thought, voice tittering hysterically. The doctor frowned and her and—oh, that was right, only Eleanor’s body was still at Hill House, and the constable was beginning to grow suspicious. “I suppose I’ll be off, then,” the constable said. “Call her next-of-kin, and none of us want that body in any of our graves; not here in Ashton. You’ll have to deal with the wretched thing yourselves.”
“It’s Eleanor,” said Theodora.
“Of course,” said the doctor, looking at the retreating back of the constable weakly.
“I just don’t want to pick up the body from all the way out there,” said Eleanor’s brother-in-law stubbornly.
“She’s your sister-in-law ,” said Dr. Montague, clearly exhausted. “You have to want to see for sure that she’s dead.
“I just don’t want to pick up the body from all the way out there,” her brother-in-law repeated.
“You have to pick up the body yourself,” said the doctor. “It’s not right that you leave your own flesh and blood—”
“Not my flesh and blood,” announced the brother-in-law. He cracked his knuckles loudly; the doctor flinched, noise audible over the phone line’s static crackling.
Dr. Montague forged through bravely. “—your own flesh and blood out here in dear old Hill House without anyone knowing or caring that she’s dead.”
“It’s not right that Eleanor’s gone and stolen our nice old car and broken it and now we’ve got nothing to show for all of this but a body that you expect me to pick up from God knows—”
Dr. Montague suddenly and unexpectedly hung up the phone. He looked to Theodora and Luke, who were standing by, silently.
If this is what Eleanor had to put up with, day in and day out, I’m not the least bit surprised that she never wanted to leave Hill House. The thought bounced through Theodora’s mind, unbidden. She startled, looking up at the doctor quickly.
“Theodora?” Luke asked wonderingly. “Are you feeling quite alright?”
“Yes,” she said haltingly. “I’m fine—it’s just that I think I’ll lie down for a bit, and then we’ll decide what to do with the body.”
Dr. Montague stood, and pushed the phone aside. “There is an Eleanor-sized plot of land outside; if the brother decides he’ll have nothing to do with it, we can bury her out there.”
“He’s not her brother, not at all—no, he’s her brother-in-law,” Theodora said meekly, rocking back and forth in the richly upholstered living room chair.
“We could drive the ghastly thing to the crematorium, too,” said Luke. “They could deal with it, and then we could leave the urn here. I know some perfectly vile vases we might put it in.”
Eleanor would like to be put next to the creek , Theodora thought. Eleanor would like to have her urn put outside, with the sun and the frogs and a picnic blanket, for her and I to sit, and a white cat, and her awful red cardigan; not in some horrid vase that Luke owns. She said none of this, rocking back and forth and gnashing at her teeth.
The doctor was saying, “It might simply be easier to deal with it here—there’s a horrid scent to the crematoriums, nowadays, and my lungs couldn’t handle the stress, not at this age.”
“Then we must bury her ourselves,” said Luke.
Theodora stood up as Dr. Montague attempted to nod his affirmation; she felt a swift rush of blood to the head and sat back down.
“Theo?” asked Luke. “Are you feeling—”
“Just fine, actually, though I think I might lie down for a while; I’m a bit dizzy.”
“Of course,” said Luke, gracious host that he was. “If you need anything, we’ll all be down here.”
Theo nodded and made a hasty escape. As she walked, she could hear the doctor saying, “Poor dear, she looked horribly pale. I suppose the excitement of a day such as this would do that to her; nothing like death to make one feel alive!”